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The political hazing of Grace Poe

In retrospect, Senator Grace Poe will be grateful about the events in the month of August. 

In particular, the filing of the disqualification case against her by Rizalino David and her blunder in her response to the Iglesia ni Cristo protest against Justice Secretary Leila de Lima unexpectedly tested her at an early stage of the presidential campaign. Even as she has not yet declared, Senator Poe has been subjected to criticism, hatred and vitriol. Her patriotism has been questioned; even her husband and children’s love for our country has been attacked.

Indeed, in August, Senator Poe suffered the equivalent of political hazing.

If she survived that month with her character intact, and most importantly with her family strong and united, she would now be ready for prime time. If she decides not to run, particularly because of her family and especially her young daughters, I would respect that. One should never sacrifice family ever even for a good cause. If Senator Poe however chose not to run, I would consider that a big loss for the country. We need good options for 2016 and she, alongside Mayor Rudy Duterte, would present an alternative to the two big anti-change and anti-reform establishment parties. While I am not ready to endorse her now or even to vote for her, I would like the option of doing that in May 2016.

It is imperative that Grace Poe’s campaign learns from the INC fiasco. It was not that she said the wrong thing; indeed, we have to respect everyone’s rights and especially on the exercise of religion.

What was incomplete in her statement is that she did not support Justice Secretary de Lima’s action of investigating a criminal complaint properly filed in the Department of Justice. By remaining silent on that, Senator Poe appeared to be siding with INC for political reasons.

What worsened matters is that Senator Chiz Escudero, expected to be her vice-presidential candidate, went all the way to support the INC by saying that Secretary de Lima should prioritize other investigations and leave INC alone with their internal problems. People conflated Escudero’s statement with Poe’s and concluded they are both pro-INC and are willing to openly disregard the rule of law for the sake of getting the group’s vote. 

The truth is only Duterte got it right; ironically it was the archenemy of de Lima who supported her while Binay went on record also to fully support INC and Roxas was balanced in asking INC to respect of the rights of others affected by the protest. The mitigating circumstance in the case of Poe, lost in the noise that followed her remarks, was that her statement was given in an ambush interview compounded further by an error committed by a campaign volunteer. 

The clear lesson here is for Senator Poe and her staff to be very disciplined from now on. No ambush interviews especially when there is a controversy; she should have access to experts who can give her instant advice; her staff must always be monitoring social media to warn her of the mood of people; and of course, no longer must it happen that an ordinary volunteer can upload critical material without clearance from the senior communications people in the campaign.

Elephant in the room

There is another thing that Senator Poe must do.

Aside from the legal issues on citizenship and residence that she must face, there is another elephant in the room in Poe’s campaign and that is Senator Escudero. Now, let me be clear: I believe Senator Escudero is the right choice as VP for Poe. They are good friends, they are compatible, and they trust each other. This is a recipe for a good partnership. 

Personally, my experience with Senator Escudero has always been positive, with him always being respectful of this simple professor (although I never taught him, I suspect my being a UP Law professor has earned me that treatment from this powerful politician). Nonetheless, it is clear to me that there must be a sharp distinction between the Poe and Escudero campaigns, with the latter subordinate to the former.

The truth is that Senator Escudero is not popular with some quarters that believe him to be a traditional politician, as a traitor (in the 2010 elections when he engineered the NoyBi campaign), and even as corrupt. To these quarters, Senator Poe is tainted by the association with Escudero and the experience with the INC controversy is positive proof of how Poe is just the puppet of her best friend in the Senate.

Having observed the steeliness and strong will of Senator Poe, I do not believe that she is a puppet of Escudero, but perception in politics is sometimes more important than reality. And definitely the perception is there and it will be hard for that to disappear unless the Poe campaign takes serious and visible steps to distance itself from the Escudero VP campaign.

The truth is that the presidential and vice-presidential elections are different elections. People cross over all the time and mix their votes. This will happen again in 2016.

There must, of course, be coordination between the two campaigns with Escudero’s subordinate to Poe’s. In practice, that means Senator Poe must always be taking the lead on policy statements and Senator Escudero must always wait until the latter has spoken before he weighs in to support her. 

Get more advisers

An important element of this distancing is that Senator Poe must widen her circle of advisers and not rely just on Senator Escudero’s views as sound as they must be.

Senator Poe’s response to the INC crisis made her sound like a traditional politician. She lost some votes because of that, some of which she will not be able to regain while others can be persuaded to return to her fold. She must now work hard to do that, and especially focus her efforts on the millennials who will be the majority of voters in next year’s elections. 

Among the declared and potential candidates, as we saw in her Nueva Ecija and Pangasinan stints, Senator Poe is the only one who speaks and understands the language of the millennials. She clearly has a big advantage over her rivals. But it would be a mistake to talk down to these young voters. She must inspire them and call on them to be excellent for the country.

But to do that, Senator Poe must be excellent herself and abandon the ways of the traditional, wheeling-dealing, and insincere traditional poltician.

The political hazing of Grace Poe came at a good time. It is my hope that her initiation into presidential politics did not embitter or destroy her. What does not kill you makes you stronger, as the saying goes. But only if you learn your lessons. –